I wrote “Can Working Families Ever Win?” to focus attention on the devastating magnitude of inequalities working families currently face in America and on the need to devote substantial collective efforts to addressing them. I am grateful for all the responses, and struck by the high degree of consensus they show on this fundamental issue.

Is it important that we as a nation do more to support the ability of parents to succeed at work and at caring for their children? This forum’s participants responded with a near uniform: yes. There was strong agreement that meeting these needs should be one of our nation’s highest priorities. Lotte Bailyn emphasizes that this “picture of the disconnect between current national and employment policies on the one hand and family needs for care on the other is a stark statement of what should be a critical national priority.” James Comer writes that addressing this challenge is “as important as ‘Homeland Security.'”

But while agreement on the need for change is an essential step, it is only the first. In this reply, I hope to move our discussion to the key next steps of debating policy design and strategies for change. While space constraints unfortunately will not permit me to discuss all of the important issues raised by each of the respondents, I will address several themes that are likely to recur in public policy debates.

Who is affected the most?

To put together the best policy solutions we need to know which working families are most disadvantaged. But we also need to know how work-family issues affect the entire American public.

Addressing work-family issues is both particularly important and particularly difficult because of how they cut across two of our deepest social divides: gender and class. Because work-family issues were for too long seen as “women’s issues” they were left in the backwater to ferment. Myra Ferree laments the continued emphasis that other authors place solely on women’s roles, instead of on changes in men’s and women’s lives. At the same time, Bailyn underscores the importance of keeping a critical perspective on how gender influences work and family. I agree with both points.

There is no doubt that women disproportionately bear the burden of our nation’s failure to address the needs of working families. At the same time, to describe work-family issues as either women’s responsibility or only affecting women would be grossly inaccurate.1  Several essential points about the gender issue bear notice here.

As we enter the twenty-first century, the picture in the United States is clear. Women do significantly more of the household chores (78 percent of women report that women carry more of this burden, as do 85 percent of men). Women are more likely than men to provide care for children, elderly parents, disabled adults, and children with disabilities or special needs. While women bear more of the caregiving burden, they face worse working conditions than men. They are less likely to have sick leave, vacation leave, or to have any flexibility in the workplace. Moreover, a majority of the pay gap between women and men is associated with their differing family responsibilities.

Although women are disproportionately affected, America’s failure to address the needs of working caregivers profoundly influences the daily lives of men as well. In any given week, 25 percent of men disrupt work to care for family members. Understanding the impact on both men and women is crucial for formulating fair policy and galvanizing the necessary political support.

The story about class is also more complex than is often portrayed. The complexity comes out in the responses in this forum. William Galston argues that the real problems are faced by families between 150 and 300 percent of the poverty line. And Karen Nussbaum writes that “the problems faced by families go far beyond the poor.”

Our studies support the contention that the problems, while most severe for the poor, are faced by families well beyond the poor and near-poor. I have repeatedly interviewed low-income parents who have lost their jobs and others whose children have ended up in the hospital when they had to choose between keeping a job that put food on the table and caring for a sick child. Yet, my research group has also frequently interviewed middle-class parents whose children have ended up in the emergency room from injuries sustained when they were left home alone, whose children with special needs are failing to get the support they need to make it through school, and who have lost jobs when they put meeting their children’s essential needs above workplace demands.

The majority of middle-class families in America still cannot routinely rely on such basic benefits as paid leave during a family emergency. Yet, while the gaps affect families throughout American society, there is no doubt that low-income families face the starkest conditions. Getting these facts right is fundamental if we are to ensure that proposed policies narrow the chasms between families’ needs and circumstances and between poor and affluent families.

Policy responses

What does this picture of the impacts across social class mean for public policy? Galston argues for targeted and means-tested programs, Theda Skocpol and others for universal ones. There are strong arguments on both sides.

How should we decide when it comes to the question of whether work-family programs should be means-tested? I would argue we should answer at least three questions. First, which strategy will best help ensure that the needs of all working families are met? Second, which design will promote equal opportunity and not exacerbate existing inequalities? Third, what design is most likely to make a high-quality program feasible?

“Can Working Families Ever Win?” argues for the importance of a number of policy and programmatic initiatives. I will focus here on three key types: paid leave as an example of essential job benefits, pre-school as an example of the value of expanding educational opportunities, and improved workplace culture, as an example of the importance of institutional change.

Jodi Grant, Thomas Kochan, and Bailyn all underscore the importance of paid leave. Ensuring that all working Americans have paid leave could take a number of forms ranging from requiring employers to provide leave, to providing family leave insurance, to the more novel approach of flexible time accounts that Kochan recommends. In all cases, it only makes sense that these policies be universal. Universal standards are feasible; in fact, we have never implemented means-tested public policies regarding workplace standards. In this case, universality expresses the idea that all Americans have the right to decent working conditions. Even when implemented universally, new policies to ensure paid leave will disproportionately benefit low and middle-income families—because they are currently the families that disproportionately lack reliable paid leave.

Both Comer and Isabelle Ferreras argue compellingly about the essential role of education. In the case of expanding both early education and programs for school-age children, I would argue that American children will only have an equal opportunity to succeed at school if the new programs are universal. Head Start, a means-tested program, is in its fourth decade. Yet, despite its demonstrated importance, it still has not been funded to a level that provides access to most children living in poverty. In contrast, while inequalities that desperately need to be addressed remain in public K–12 education, they are far smaller than they would be in the absence of universal public schools.

While we could rapidly make paid leave and early education universally available in the United States, as they are in other nations, we know less about how to bring other potential work-family changes to scale. Bailyn cogently raises the critical issue of one such area: workplace culture. While Bailyn and others have had a great deal of success with intensive interventions in individual workplaces, such interventions are unlikely to occur in the majority of the millions of American workplaces. If, for feasibility reasons, we must target this type of program, we should start where the conditions are worst and need is greatest: in low-wage workplaces.

There are many important aspects of policy design beyond the question of universality, that there is not adequate space to discuss fully here. I would like to underscore the importance of at least four raised by respondents: Ferreras’s litmus test for policies that support real “capabilities” and not just possibilities, Bradley Googin’s attention to the realistic relationship between public and private sectors, Joan Tronto’s concern that policy approaches should raise the value placed on caregiving, and Anne Alstott’s reminder of the importance of programs for the non-working poor.


The steps between policy proposal, passage, and implementation are many. I focused my original comments on the evidence regarding the condition of working families and not on the politics. However, I agree with respondents like Skocpol, who remind us that the politics on these issues are likely to be fierce. (Unfortunately, I am neither young enough nor innocent enough to believe that changes will follow as soon as we have documented the urgent needs of children and families.)

Consider two kinds of arguments we may see as the politics of work-family policy heats up: first, efforts to de-legitimize any government role and second, efforts to assign all work-family problems to the sphere of individual responsibility. Skocpol is right to note that some conservatives seek to de-legitimize “the very notion of nationally managed social provision.” Jean Elshtain’s response illustrates the point when she claims that providing better educational opportunities would make government “the nurturer of first resort.” Clearly, providing early education will no more make government a nurturer of first resort than providing free public education during the past century and a half has done.

Elshtain also raises the individual responsibility debate when she argues by reference to her own immigrant family that if you work hard enough, everything will work out. It’s nice to hear her family fared well, but none of us should assume that our personal lives are representative of the country as a whole. And, unfortunately, the evidence does not support Elshtain’s contention that hers was a “typical American immigrant story.” Indeed, four of five children of immigrants in the United States have not had the opportunity to complete college. InAmazing Grace, Jonathan Kozol eloquently describes the problem with generalizing from individual success stories: “The trouble with miracles, [however,] is that they don’t happen for most children; and a good society cannot be built on miracles or on the likelihood that they will keep occurring.”

While Elshtain is wrong on the facts, she will not be alone in making such arguments. Having the evidence to accurately counter them is important. However, that will not be enough. Translating the wide public support for work-family polices into broad-based political participation would make a substantial difference.

Nussbaum speaks compellingly about the critical role the labor movement might play in such efforts. Frances Fox Piven supports this call while expressing concern about some of the profound challenges labor currently faces in the United States. I agree with both and would only add that just as unions have a great deal to contribute to a campaign calling for our country to better address the needs of working families, unions also have a great deal to gain by taking on these issues. Union membership is down in the United States to 13.5 percent and unionization is particularly low in sectors in which women disproportionately work.

Ferree raises the possibility of a role for the women’s movement in moving this agenda forward. As in the case of the unions, addressing the needs of working families may help this movement as much as the movement may help the agenda. The women’s movement has become sadly fractured for many reasons, but one of the important reasons has been its inability to successfully articulate goals that support women who see one of their important roles as that of caregiver, whether or not they are also paid workers.

While there is little doubt that these movements can play critical roles in moving legislation forward, there is also no doubt that important legislative changes can be made with broad public support, even without mass movements. What else may make a difference? Among other factors, leadership matters more than we often credit. Universal preschool education passed in Georgia with a lottery and leadership but without a true statewide movement. Coalitions of organizations matter. The Family Medical Leave Act was passed without a mass movement. But it had strong support from organizations representing the elderly, disabled, and working women and men; and it had an organized coalition. Finally, bridging divides will matter. While some work-family proposals will split inevitably across political or labor-business divides, others need not, as the efforts of bipartisan groups at the state level and individuals like Donna Klein of the Employer Group demonstrate. We should harvest the fruits of this common ground.

A compelling need

The consensus was nearly universal among the responses: we need to address the conditions faced by working families in the United States. We have to ensure that we meet the needs of families now living in or near poverty, while providing better supports to all families. Even Elshtain argues that “because we are all in it together, we cannot tolerate over the long haul, permanent and growing gaps in the ways of life the vast majority of Americans live and presume that the ‘glue’ will hold.”

As founding director of the Project on Global Working Families, I lead a research team examining these issues not only in North America and Europe, but also in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The problems we have heard from families in Houston and Sacramento are echoed in Tegucigalpa and Gabarone. In the immediate future, we will need to address these issues as a national community. In the long run, as Susan Okin reminds us in her response, we will need to address these same issues as a global community.